More tap water is expected to be flowing in the future to fast-growing southern Hillsborough County.
On Monday, the directors of Tampa Bay Water, the regional water supplier, approved an idea that had been shelved last summer. It calls for Hillsborough County to inject treated wastewater underground at coastal sites to offset drawing new drinking water from an inland well.
But officials stressed the project was different from Tampa’s controversial PURE proposal, which may, under certain circumstances, introduce highly treated wastewater into the Hillsborough River.
Tampa Bay Water initially considered the proposal as part of its long-term master plan, but scrapped it last year after failing to come to terms with Hillsborough County over cost and contract length. The agreement approved Monday is for 10 years, and the well could be operational within two years.
When completed, the new well will produce up to 2.3 million gallons a day of additional water to serve a region that had been on restricted water use for all of 2021 and 2022. The water restrictions, adopted because of “dangerously low” pressure in the county’s utility system for south county, expired Jan. 1.
“It’s a big need down in south county,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Joshua Wostal, who noted potential future growth likely would head for the county’s southeast quadrant. “There’s just nowhere else for it (growth) to be.”
Tampa Bay Water delivers 186 million gallons of water daily to Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties and to the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey, including approximately 25 million gallons a day produced at an existing regional well field in south Hillsborough.
The additional water from the new well is considered a temporary fix until a planned 26-mile, $417 million pipeline is completed in 2028 to send as much as 65 million gallons of additional drinking water daily to south Hillsborough.
Under the plan approved Monday, Hillsborough County will inject reclaimed water into the ground at a series of wells west of Interstate 75 near the county’s coastal areas. The injected water will act as a barrier to saltwater intrusion, reduce the amount of reclaimed water the county discharges into Tampa Bay and boost freshwater levels inland, allowing for the new well to extract additional groundwater. The Southwest Florida Water Management District still must approve the well permit.
Trading reclaimed water for groundwater is required because the water district designated the vicinity part of the water use caution area in the 1990s after pumping dropped underground water levels and triggered saltwater intrusion into the Upper Floridan aquifer. District rules require new groundwater withdrawals to be offset by a separate environmental action resulting in a positive effect on the aquifer.
“Without some sort of environmental benefit, there is no new water source available in this area,” said Warren Hogg, Tampa Bay Water’s chief science officer.
Monday, Tampa Bay Water’s board of directors wanted to differentiate the Hillsborough program from other proposals, dubbed toilet-to-tap by critics, that call for directly augmenting drinking water sources with reclaimed water.
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“This is not what that is,” said Pinellas Commissioner David Eggers. “This is clearly a very separate system. ... It really works beautifully, the two (groundwater and reclaimed water) don’t co-mingle, and that’s the most important part of this.”